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Death & Dying

Review of "Immortal Remains"

By Stephen E. Braude
Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
Review by Ken Bryson, Ph.D. on Aug 28th 2003
Immortal Remains

Who hasn't wondered about what, if anything, happens after personal death, what the dead do, how they are, and where they are, if not in graveyards? In my experience, the subject generates more problems than philosophy's other 'big questions'. The study moves us beyond the natural order of things to a place where the principle of sufficient reason is on shaky grounds. The fact that Stephen Braude tackles the issue through a study of parapsychology strikes me as risky business. He might get there, but why 'base jump' when established paths (metaphysics and epistemology) are risky enough?

Still, his research is thorough. He brings credibility to parapsychology. Given the importance of the issue, we best read along and listen to what mediums say about the dead. It could be the case that some of us will survive death (at least for a time) and that our pre mortem and post mortem states are connected in some fashion. If so, then, some individuals ought to be able to explain that connection to us. These individuals, the mediums, must possess some qualifications to do this work. What standard do we use to determine the legitimacy of a reported connection with the dead? Clearly some mediums are crackpots. When (if ever) is communication from the dead genuine? Should we appeal to simplicity or complexity? It seems counter intuitive to suppose that a competent medium would seek to obfuscate things unnecessarily, though in some instances the dead are unclear, as Braude reports.

My main problem with this whole business is that the attempt to communicate with the dead puts us on a slippery slope towards the absurd. Death is not something we can experience. So what the dead have to report about themselves (if the dead survive their personal death) moves beyond our point of view. Thus the communication cannot address the nature of death as such. The mistake (the absurdity) is to confound both states. For instance, we say that death is the loss of consciousness (brain death). The dead do nothing. Are mediums reporting on what the dead do when they do nothing or on how it feels not to feel anything?

The solution to this problem might be to suppose that we can establish an intuited connection with the dead. This views seems to make sense since it puts the dead outside of space and time (and defuses the absurdity of asking where someone is when someone is nowhere). Why then do the dead generally report trivial matters, as Braude says? Communication with the dead should be an awesome opportunity for insight into the mysteries of existence, why there is something rather than nothing, what lies outside space and time, and why innocent victims suffer, if a loving God exists? Perhaps communication with the dead can be used to explain some of the problems raised in Chapter 9: the mind-body problem, and the issue of personal identity (how the dead remain personal as disembodied spirit). Braude claims that his work in parapsychology prepares the way for a metaphysico-epistemological study of death, but I see it the other way around. We can use metaphysics as a firewall against some of these absurdities.

The exciting thing about the field of parapsychology is that it is fraught with difficulties, paradoxes, contradictions, imprecisions, puzzles, unexamined assumptions, and non sequiturs. It is a wonderful teaching tool because the student soon learns to define terms, make distinctions, examine assumptions, maintain internal consistency, and take out the trash. I know of no branch of philosophy that offers more opportunity for a radical interrogation of reality. In that regard, Braude's work is a gem. Once we get over contents, we can focus on the real goal of the book, to investigate the possibility of survival. His work suggests that death is not always the end of personal existence. In some instances, the data of parapsychology suggests the possibility of survival. This aspect is more promising than the contents side (albeit difficult to separate one from the other).

Philosophers will appreciate the fact that Braude opens his disciplined, analytical examination of the evidence by defining terms, making distinctions, reducing the complex to the simple, and otherwise setting the stage for a meticulous analysis of assumptions(Chapter 1). We are introduced to the usual variety of issues, and some not so expected (see the book's Index for a sampling of topics), but all designed to scrutinize the medium's message from the dead. Braude succeeds in raising doubts that the evidence can be explained by psychology alone. The case of Patience Worth (Chapter 5) is striking in that regard. He gradually accumulates a stockpile of data, not all of it favourable to survival, but on the whole it provides him with a reasonable basis to conclude that some individuals seem to survive their personal death, even if only for a limited time. His book is fair, balanced, honest, and well written.

I teach courses in death and dying and we cover a wide range of topics, including many that are raised in this book. I recommend this book. It's the best I've seen in parapsychology.


© 2003 Ken Bryson


Ken Bryson Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University College of Cape Breton

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